Susan Kouguell Speaks to Award-Winning Documentary Filmmaker Joe Berlinger About Intent to Destroy

Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger has never shied away from taking on controversial subjects. Berlinger’s new film Intent to Destroy is no exception.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars.  Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger has never shied away from taking on controversial subjects. Berlinger’s new film Intent to Destroy is no exception.

Joe Berlinger

From a filmmaking standpoint, it was incredibly challenging to tell a complicated, historical story in an interesting manner and to juggle three different threads – the complex history of the Armenian Genocide, the production of a long-suppressed major feature that deploys the Genocide as its backdrop, and finally the aftermath of the genocide and legacy of denial.

– Joe Berlinger

Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger has never shied away from taking on controversial subjects. Berlinger’s new film Intent to Destroy is no exception. It is powerful and timely, and a must-see.

ABOUT JOE BERLINGER

Academy Award® nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger is a two-time Emmy, and Peabody winner. He has received multiple awards from the Directors Guild of America, the National Board of Review and the Independent Spirit Awards. Berlinger’s work includes the landmark documentaries BROTHER’S KEEPER, PARADISE LOST, METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER, CRUDE, UNDER AFRICAN SKIES, WHITEY: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. JAMES J. BULGER, HANK: 5 YEARS FROM THE BRINK, and TONY ROBBINS: I AM NOT YOUR GURU. He has directed and produced five seasons of the critically acclaimed Sundance Channel series ICONOCLASTS and directed/executive-produced the first two seasons of the Emmy-nominated MASTER CLASS, a series for the Oprah Winfrey Network. Berlinger’s multiple Emmy-winning PARADISE LOST series for HBO helped spawn a worldwide movement to free “The West Memphis Three” from wrongful murder convictions. The latest film in the trilogy, PARADISE LOST 3:  PURGATORY was nominated for an Oscar in 2012 and two primetime Emmy awards.


Script EXTRA: More articles on documentary filmmaking!


 

ABOUT INTENT TO DESTROY: Death, Denial & Depiction

Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger has never shied away from taking on controversial subjects. Berlinger’s new film Intent to Destroy is no exception.Joe Berlinger embeds with a historic feature film production on the set of Terry George’s The Promise, to take an unwavering look at the Armenian Genocide. Historians, scholars, and high-profile filmmakers come together in Berlinger’s cinematic exploration of the tangled web of responsibility that has driven a century of denial by the Turkish government and its strategic allies. Intent to Destroy is a timely reckoning with the large-scale suppression of a historical tragedy. Berlinger confronts the fraught task of shedding light on the Armenian Genocide — whose witnesses and descendants are still fighting to be officially acknowledged as such by the international community — how it was carried out during World War I as the reign of the Ottoman Empire drew to a close, and how it laid the groundwork for the genocides that followed.

KOUGUELL: How did you get involved with this film?

BERLINGER: I was always fascinated about the subject of the Armenian genocide but never thought I had anything to add because I’m not a historical, talking-head, archival-footage, kind of filmmaker. I follow stories that unfold in the present tense, which by definition means you’re not writing them. But, with director Terry George’s The Promise; it presented an opportunity to drill into the subject matter that I’ve always been fascinated by. I thought here’s a way to still allow me to work in my comfort zone, which is unfolding cinéma vérité by covering the making of the movie, but it wasn’t just gratuitous behind the scenes. The other reason I wanted to cover The Promise was, to me, the making of the film was quite historic because over the years this subject matter has been taboo in Hollywood.

Thematically, I wanted to make a film not just about the Armenian genocide, because that has been done before, but to me what was interesting was the denial and the mechanism of denial and the aftermath of denial, and that is perfectly expressed through the following of the making The Promise; it allowed me to tell the story that over the years Hollywood has always treated the subject as a taboo.

As early as 1935, Irving Thalberg wanted to turn The Forty Days of Musa Dagh into a film and during production, the Turkish government complained to the State Department and the State Department then twisted the arm of the Hollywood studio to drop the project and that’s been the vibe for eight decades. Nobody has wanted to tackle the subject because every time they do they get a complaint. That kind of censorship in Hollywood encapsulates the century-long campaign to sweep this story under the rug.

Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger has never shied away from taking on controversial subjects. Berlinger’s new film Intent to Destroy is no exception.

Director Joe Berlinger (right) and Director of Photography Bob Richman (left) with Director Terry George on the set of The Promise. Photo courtesy of Survival Pictures, LLC. Photo credit: Jose Haro.

 

KOUGUELL: Tell me about your writing process. Did you work from an outline?

BERLINGER: We wrote up the research and the direction we were headed in. You have to understand your subject matter. For me, present tense cinéma vérité is the opposite of writing the film, however this film was rich in history, and a complicated history at that, and the real challenge of this film was to simplify the history but still be accurate.

We didn’t write down the dialogue or what people were going to say, we would never do that, but we certainly wrote much more than I usually do. We wrote the kind of direction the film should take.


Script EXTRA: The Debate and Tips for Outlining or Script


The following of The Promise was its own thing that I treated like any cinéma vérité situation where I just follow the story and brought all that footage back. Then we had to consider how to integrate the behind the scenes footage and how to do that with the unfolding history. It became quickly apparent to me that the history was more important than the behind the scenes because I didn’t want this film to be dismissed or thought of as a massive EPK (electronic press kit) behind the scenes gratuitous exercise. It was a vehicle to deliver the history.  That’s when we started writing; what are all the historical beats, how do we structure it, which I had never done before for a documentary because of the style of documentary that I make. That’s when we came up with the idea to divide it into three chapters: Death, Denial, Depiction, and write what we needed to tell the historical beats.

Any film is a process of condensation. This history is so complex and its integration with the cinéma vérité material of the behind the scenes of The Promise, we wrote an outline, got the interview subjects to address the subjects, but clearly in their own words. I would never tell an interview subject what to say. We knew the types of things we wanted from each of the interview subjects because we had a very extensive outline of what we were trying to achieve.

Archaeologists excavate Armenian dead from mass graves. Photo courtesy of Armenian Genocide Museum Institute

KOUGUELL:  You made an interesting choice to include the genocide deniers in your film.  How open were they to talk to you and appear in the film?

BERLINGER: All were very wary about agreeing to participate in the film.  I convinced them that I wanted to cover both sides of the story and be fair to their point of view. I was also very honest about where I stand on the subject; that I shake out on the other side, and to go look at my previous films. I wanted to show both sides and let the audence decide what they think about it. Several people required multiple conversations to convince them to be in the film; I think they felt it was better to participate than not participate. I think their points of view were expressed without me throwing them under the bus, but clearly my point of view rises to the top, which is that I think there was genocide.

I didn’t want to make a movie just about the genocide; I wanted to make a movie about denial. I think you have to hear from others who think it wasn’t genocide because once you understand what their arguments are and the nature of their arguments, and the fact that these arguments exist, it’s easier to understand how denial works.

Some holocaust and genocide scholars pleaded with me not to include the denial arguments in the film, because there’s a certain philosophy among holocaust and genocide scholars that you can’t give a platform to those who deny.  I was asked by a scholar, would you include the denial argument in a film about the holocaust and my answer is, if it is a film about the holocaust — no, but if it was a film about holocaust denial then I would say yes.

The film will be released in NY and LA on November 10th and then will expand.  Learn more here.

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